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The challenge of supporting someone in your life who is struggling.

Should we encourage others to “always look on the bright side of life” when they are struggling? New research suggests perhaps not.

At some point in time you may have suggested to your partner, a friend or colleague going through a difficult time  “cheer up” or “look at the positives”.  Despite your best intentions you may want to rethink this approach.

New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests what we need from support is influenced by our self-esteem. People with low self-esteem tend reject what is called “positive reframing”, such as expressions of optimism or encouragement.

People with low self-esteem want others to see them as they see themselves. What these people need is support that validates their negative emotions. They are more receptive to support that is empathic and conveys that what they are feeling is normal, reasonable or appropriate given the difficult circumstances.

The study found people with high self-esteem were however, receptive to either approach. Despite this it might be helpful to rethink how you support others, as the empathic approach will be appreciated either way. Also, the research found when support providers get it wrong they also experience negative emotions about the interaction, themselves and the relationship.

So how might you go about providing support that is helpful? Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation and reflect the emotions you hear.

Examples 

I am sorry to hear you __________________________________

(e.g. missed out that job/ have had such a hard week).

It sounds like you have _________________________________

(e.g. been having a really hard time/ felt really sad about that).                 

 

Reference

Marigold, D. C.; Cavallo, J. V.; Holmes, J. G.; Wood, J. V.  (2014). You can’t always give what you want: The challenge of providing social support to low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(1), 56-80. doi: 10.1037/a0036554

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